Friday, September 12, 2014

Michael Chong... crazy like fox, or just....

Aaron Wherry has a column at Maclean's about Michael Chong's latest compromises with his Reform Bill, the private member's bill that was supposed to empower backbenchers, freeing them from the leader's arbitrary powers and authorizing them to, gasp, hold leaders to account.

After years preparing it, Chong has changed his Reform Bill's proposals a few times since formally introducing it. Most of the changes have been interpreted as compromises, weakening the bill's import. The new changes seem like more of the same, as if the whole thing were being meddled into insignificance.

I'm not sure. Chong faces a challenge almost unknown in Canadian parliamentary politics in, oh, say the last century or so.  He has a bill in play, but he's a backbencher, not a leader.  He can't just say, here's my bill,  and know -- as a party leader does -- that all his flunkies will vote for it and all the others guys' flunkies will vote against it. As a backbencher proposing a motion in a house where backbenchers of all parties say they may or may not support it, irrespective of what their leaders want, he actually needs to put together enough votes to get his bill through. Doing a little trading in the lobby may be an essential aspect.  This is how parliamentary politics is done when the whip is restrained.

In the fuhrerprinzep (definition here) politics we live with in Canada, this is unheard of. Leaders are expected to dictate and to win; negotiating anything is a sign of weakness or capitulation. Chong, however, may be calculating it is better to get his bill through than not to. Tweaking his bill to provide what the largest number of MPs will support may be what he has to do.

Is there anything of value left in his Reform Bill?  Wherry's summary of the changes suggests Chong is putting less and less into the legislated rules on leadership powers, leaving more and more to the will of parties and party caucuses. That looks like compromise. Since Canadians assume caucuses always bend, indeed must and should bend, to their leaders' will, we assume only legally binding blackletter rules will change parliament.

Chong may be calculating that if the attitudes and behaviours of MPs and caucuses change, then everything changes. If a majority of MPs pass a bill that says they have the right to do whatever they want to in caucus, maybe some of them will actually believe it -- and start to act on it.  If they don't, all the legislated rules won't make any difference anyway. If caucuses did start asserting that leaders are members of caucus and subject to caucus discipline like other members, legislated curbs on out-of-control leaders (the kind the original Reform Bill draft provided) would hardly be necessary.

If MPs are just looking for a face saving way to surrender to the bosses, these changes will provide for that. That's not unlikely. But if they are accepting that if MPs want to take control of their caucuses and legislatures, they just have the powers already, Chong could yet have a stealth victory.

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